The Purple Line’s enemies. Photo by thecourtyard on Flickr.

I testified at the Bethesda/Chevy Chase Purple Line hearing last night. Most speakers rehashed the same arguments made back and forth in western Montgomery County over the past few years. The “Save the Trail” crowd repeated their parochial concerns. 

But these opponents were definitely the minority. 60-80% of the people who spoke before me (I was nunmber 30) supported the light rail Purple Line.  A few (including me) specifically spoke up for the High Investment Light Rail option. It was an excellent hearing, especially for light rail Purple Line proponents.

A wide cross section of people spoke for the project: transit advocates, citizens at large, citizens of the Town of Chevy Chase who were upset about their town government’s stancec, senior citizens who remembered streetcars and lamented them ever disappearing, various local Chambers of Commerce, a representative from the Montgomery County League of Women Voters, a representative from the Town of North Chevy Chase, and others.

The Town of North Chevy Chase opposes the Jones Bridge Road bus alignment (Low Investment BRT) because it would literally increase traffic in their front yards. It would mean buses every two minutes right in front of North Chevy Chase Elementary School. The town’s representative pointed out that light rail on the old CSX freight railroad tracks has been part of the county’s Master Plan for 20 years. The Jones Bridge Road busway only came up earlier this year when the Town of Chevy Chase commissioned Sam Schwartz to do a study, completely funded by the town, that (surprise!) supported the town’s position.

I was the only speaker I saw who was under 30. Another guy, who appeared to be in his thirties, said he favored the LRT because he’s committed to a green, transit oriented lifestyle and was sick of standing for 24 minutes on a J2/J3 bus from his home in downtown Bethesda to get to Silver Spring. I commend him for sticking to his convictions, and speaking out about it when it counts.

I tried to use my three minutes to say something that none of the other 29 speakers before me had already said. I focused on the long, long term costs of the High Investment LRT option. The New York City Subway has been running for approximately one century. Our Metro has been running for a little over 30 years. The cost-effectiveness estimates in the Maryland MTA’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement centered around 2030, because of the rules for federal funding.

The longer a time frame we use to amortize the initial construction costs, the smaller the High Investment LRT’s capital costs become compared to the benefits of the higher investment. The lower investment options cost less up front, but also deliver disproportionately fewer benefits over the life of the transit line. Light rail is the most expensive, but also the best value.  Just like our existing Metro, you get what you pay for. 

(And all options are deemed to be cost-effective enough for federal funding, according to FTA metrics.)

Since I hail from a different generation than most other speakers, I emphasized that this project is about the future of our region, not just about money. I pointed out that most young professionals in the Washington region prefer to live in a vibrant walkable environment. Even those who want to have yards and single family houses don’t put the big yard on the same pedestal as our parents do. Most want a place where there is some form of community, whether a small town, walkable suburban town, or neighborhood in a major city.  Such places need infrastructure to support them.  Electrified rail is the highest performance transportation infrastructure in a walkable environment.  Our region needs more as we continue to add jobs, residents, wealth, and vibrancy.

I had fun, and feel like I made a positive difference for my community and my region.

Cavan Wilk became interested in the physical layout and economic systems of modern human settlements while working on his Master’s in Financial Economics. His writing often focuses on the interactions between a place’s form, its economic systems, and the experiences of those who live in them.  He lives in downtown Silver Spring.